Not every son is happy to follow in his father’s footsteps. But that’s exactly what Michael Wildes wanted to do. “I had the privilege of growing up in a house where my father was respected for being a distinguished Jewish leader and a scholar. I wanted to be where my dad was.”
Leon Wildes founded Wildes & Weinberg, P.C. in 1960, specializing in immigration law. He achieved notoriety outside legal circles for his work representing John Lennon in his battle to avoid deportation. He recently wrote a book about the case with Michael contributing the foreword. Leon Wildes taught at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law for 33 years and Michael is currently an adjunct professor there, teaching business immigration law.
Wildes became a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn and then joined his father’s firm. He fulfilled his interest in public service when he became mayor of Englewood from 2004 to 2010. Today he is the Managing Partner of Wildes and Weinberg. While he still plans to get back into politics one day, he’s staying on the sidelines for now.
A moderate Democrat, Wildes said his model was Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Congressman and Senator from Washington who championed social justice but vehemently opposed totalitarian regimes. He sees both parties veering to the extremes, but it is his Democratic Party that concerns him most. He was disturbed by CNN leaking questions for the presidential debates to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and is wary of Ralph Ellison, a politician with ties to Louis Farrakhan who wants to lead the DNC.
Wildes is a Democratic fundraiser who supported Hillary Clinton. But he counts Donald Trump as a client, and says of the President-elect, “I know him to be a person compassionate about individuals and compliant on regulations.” Just as John Lennon’s case brought awareness to the firm decades ago, Michael Wildes has been making the rounds of press and TV pundits to defend the absolute integrity of Melania Trump’s immigration history, after being hired by the Trumps to review her immigration documents. The firm has represented models from Trump’s modelling agency and from the Miss Universe Pageant, which Mr. Trump once owned. Wildes maintains that everything was done legally. In a letter released for publication, he wrote: “The documentation reflects that Mrs. Trump’s first entry to the United States was on August 27, 1996 pursuant to a B-1/B-2 visitor visa. Shortly thereafter, on October 18, 1996, the U.S. Embassy in Slovenia issued Mrs. Trump her first H-1B visa, a category which authorizes employment as a model in the United States. Mrs. Trump was thereafter consistently issued H-1B visas, five in total, between October 1996 and 2001, at which point she became a lawful permanent resident, or ‘green card’ holder.”
“Melania maintained her visa and secured a green card, making all the inquiries moot,” Wildes said in an interview for this article. “I have gotten to know her and have been at the residence many times. She is beyond reproach.”
Wildes works diligently to secure ways for his clients to be in the country legally. “No one wants a porous border,” Wildes said. “Not me as a former federal prosecutor and mayor. We have an obligation to vet properly. This is an arena where profiling and intelligence can easily be done. Unfortunately, the dialogue on refugees has deteriorated. We’re fearful of opening doors to people in need. But as Jews, we need to be super sensitive and gracious to those in jeopardy: They could be us.”
Wildes bemoans the loss of talent that is a byproduct of excessive immigration restriction. “Immigrants become entrepreneurs and good Americans; we should be putting them on the tax rolls. We have foreign students coming to our educational institutions and then we turn them away. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet say most new patents are now coming from foreign nations.”
Over 800,000 children brought here illegally are now living in limbo: The United States is the only country they know, yet they are prevented from becoming citizens. Many are finding a path to legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known by its acronym DACA, or the Dreamers Law, whose roots can be traced to Leon Wildes’s work for John Lennon. In preparing his case, Wildes discovered that the government was secretly allowing some illegal immigrants to stay due to the particulars of their situation, and he used that knowledge to secure a green card for Lennon. Wildes said President Obama used that policy to create DACA, which is now being challenged by 26 states. “We should be able to absorb hundreds of thousands of children,” Wildes lamented. “We have dreamers in the military with no accent. It doesn’t matter if you pray on Friday, Saturday or Sunday; they were brought here by the grace of God and their parents.”
One of those children is now a Wildes client. Rezai Karim was 5 years old when his Muslim parents brought him from Bangladesh, a country he barely remembers. It was only when he was high school age that felt the consequences of being undocumented—he got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts to help pay for college but learned he technically wasn’t allowed to work. Three years after graduating from John Jay College in 2009, he registered for the new DACA program, which meant he could apply for work authorization and not be deported.
A terrible incident put Karim on a better path to legal status. After moving to Roanoke, Virginia to take a job as a software engineer, he and his girlfriend were attacked. According to Newsweek, which published a feature story about Karim, he opened the door to their apartment, and a man with a knife appeared from behind the couple. He forced his way in, slashing them, while shouting “Allahu Akbar.” The suspected attacker is now in custody.
Wildes is helping Karim get a U visa, an option for some crime victims who aid law enforcement in their investigation of the crime. The visa is valid for four years and can be extended, leading to a green card.
There is another category of would-be immigrants trapped in limbo. Citizens in countries where the US has been fighting have helped the Americans, only to be being targeted as traitors at home, yet denied entrance to the US. Wildes said the FBI recently referred a couple to him who spied for the US and were promised green cards but now they are being denied.
If you saw the movie Lone Survivor, you know about Marcus Luttrell, the Navy Seal who was the lone survivor of a Taliban ambush when he was with a group in Afghanistan, hunting for a Taliban leader. Luttrell was able to carve out a life for himself, writing a book about his experiences that became the hit movie. He is also an entrepreneur and sought-after speaker.
The man who helped him survive hasn’t fared as well. Mohammad Gulab found Luttrell after the attack, brought him back to his village and protected him. He was subject to continuous retaliation from the Taliban after that. Luttrell and Gulab initially remained friends and the US helped Gulab financially. But through a series of unfortunate events, Gulab was unable to come to the US with his wife and children for good until Wildes took his case pro bono and eventually got the family to Texas.
Sometimes Wildes works to keep “bad guys” out of the country. In 2009, while Wildes was mayor of Englewood, he took on Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi wanted to put up a tent on an Englewood property owned by Libya and stay there while the United Nations was in session. “The Pan Am bomber (a Libyan intelligence officer who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 from London over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 ) was just being released,” Michael recalled. “Mayor Bloomberg wouldn’t let Gadhafi pitch a tent in Central Park and I wouldn’t allow the white tent on the lawn. I’m an American and also a proud Jew. He killed 38 New Jersey citizens. Despite personal peril—the police protected my family—I wanted to show the world how to stand up and not be fearful.”
Maintaining the roles of attorney and mayor was a tough balancing act. “I always felt half a block away from a Kiddush Hashem or a chillul Hashem,” he mused. The logistics also required some fast footwork. “It’s easier to maneuver now when I don’t have to return for a fire or a shooting,” he said. “And I’m more welcome in shul now,” he laughed.
Law is a family affair for the Wildeses, about to include the third generation. Michael’s wife, Amy, whom he met when they were both students in one of his father’s classes, runs the firm’s Englewood office, handling immigration compliance work for area companies. Their daughter Raquel earned a Master’s Degree in journalism and is now in law school, as is their son Joshua. That may be one of his proudest achievements.
“My father had two grandchildren in the back row when he was lecturing,” said Wildes, launching into a mini D’var Torah. “Why are we B’nei Yisrael? The Torah says because of the relationship between Yaakov and his grandchildren. We’re judged by the next generation. My father can sit in law school and see his grandchildren carry the torch.”
By Bracha Schwartz